On Indians in East Africa

The Indian diaspora is said to be over 30 million. While the popular tendency is usually to talk of the diaspora in the West (which is recent in formation), Indians have played a far more important role in East Africa if we take a long historical view of the past 150 years

Thomas Sowell’s very fine book “Migrations and Cultures” is an eye-opener in this respect as it sheds a great deal of light on the Indian engagement in Africa since the middle of 19th century. This short post dwells briefly on the Indian contributions in East Africa (particularly Uganda / Tanzania / Kenya) drawn mainly from Sowell’s work.

Let’s take the Tanzanian island outpost of Zanzibar off the African east coast. While the Indian presence in Zanzibar today is not much to write home about, this island was one of the first African territories to be settled by Indians. There was a phase in history when Zanzibar was practically run by Indians. In 1860, a report mentioned – “All the shopkeepers and artisans at Zanzibar are natives of India”!

The numbers of Indians in Zanzibar weren’t great. Only about 5000 in the 1860s. But nearly all foreign trade was conducted by them. As of 1872, an American trader owed Indian financiers in the Island $2MM and a French firm owed these financiers at least $4MM.

While in mid 19th century, Indian presence was largely in Zanzibar and some coastal areas of East Africa, the interior was opened up when the British constructed the great railroad that connected Mombasa port in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda in late 19th century. 16000 laborers were involved in the construction of this great pioneer Railway project. Of which 15000 were Indians.

What’s interesting is that these coolies were pretty expensive compared to the indigenous African labor. Yet the expensive indentured Indian labor from thousands of miles away was preferred as they were more valuable and productive than locally available African labor. The railroad construction proved the trigger for much of the Indian migration to the African mainland – particularly Kenya and Uganda. Much of the migration was from Gujarat.

The Indian settlements in these parts were a momentous event in Africa’s long history. In Sowell’s words, the Indian shops in East Africa were the first commercial retail establishments ever encountered by these African villages in their entire history. The Indians in East Africa were the first to import / sell cereal. Sowell credits them for “transforming East Africa from a subsistence and barter economy into a money economy” in the late 19th / early 20th century.

As an example Taxes in Uganda until late 19th century were paid in kind. Starting in 20th century they were paid in money and the currency was rupees!

In 1905, a report in Kenya declared – “80% of the present capital and business energy in the country is Indian”. In 1948, Indians owned over 90% of all cotton gins in Uganda. In the 1960s, when the Indian population peaked in Uganda, their share of the population was about 1%. But as per some estimates the “Asian” contribution (mostly Indian) to the national GDP ranged from 35% to 50%.

In 1952, there were twice as many African traders as Indian traders in Uganda, but the Indian traders did 3 times as much business as the Africans! Despite Govt regulations which hampered Indians from setting up shops (again as per Sowell).

Resentment against Indian dominance eventually got a lease of life when most of the East African countries became independent in the 60s and 70s. The dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of most Ugandan Indians in the early 70s was a notorious episode at the time when the Asian population in Uganda dropped from 96K in 1968 to ~1000 in 1972.

The case in Kenya was not very different from Uganda. Indians dominated the Kenyan economy. Yet post Kenyan Independence, the pressures to “africanize” meant that the Asian (mostly Indian) numbers in Kenya dropped from 176K in 1962 to 25K in 1975.

Today Indians play a more marginal role in the region than they once did. .While we tend to diss imperialism a lot, we sometimes forget that imperialism was also a driver of such unlikely inter-continental migrations which brought commercial culture to hitherto unexplored regions.

Political independence to the region did not work out very well for the enterprising Indian diaspora. The Indian businessman who had played a large role in building these economies was driven out of it, with little gratitude.

The story of Indians in East Africa is a much unheralded one, that ought to be celebrated more in India, and must be taught in Indian textbooks. This was not a political colonization driven by kings. This was a mission undertaken by hard working ordinary Indians who shone with their probity, enterprise and sweat.

All the more reason to celebrate and commemorate it.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

31 thoughts on “On Indians in East Africa”

  1. A lot of my family was in Africa at that time, especially Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. They made good money there.My great grand father was killed in controversial terms and my immediate family came back to India in the 1940s.

  2. I knew quite a few Indians whose families had roots in Kenya, Tanzania etc. in one of my previous jobs. Heavy preponderance of Shah surnames. Many of the exiles in Uganda settled in the UK thanks to Tory prime minister Ted Heath and have done very well for themselves such as Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary. She is needled about her origins now when she announces anti-immigration measures.

    1. yeah Shah is my grandmother’s maiden name and the last name of several of my cousins.

      It is a common Guju Vania last name, both vaishnav hindu and Jain.

    2. It’d be interesting to see data on whether the African-Indian community is more right-wing than other parts of the Indian diaspora. Freddie Mercury (frontman in the rockband Queen) came from an Indian family that fled ethnic violence in Africa.

      Even as a flamboyant liberal homosexual, he notably refused to enforce the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s. Some speculated that he still harboured a more hard-nosed view of these “black liberation” movements due to his family history.
      Perhaps something similar in play with Priti Patel, whose own family history is quite similar, as you note.

      1. Not sure.

        But UK Hindus, in general, have been voting increasingly Conservative (might be over 50% now).

        Used to vote heavily Labor.

          1. There is not much evidence of a significant shift in the Hindu vote between 2017 and 2019. I follow the news here closely in particular a British Hindu who tracks polling data closely. The vote swing to Tories in seats with a heavy Indian Hindu presence was smaller than the swing they got nationwide.

          2. Thats fair you probably know better.

            I don’t have much familiarity with UK politics or demographics, just remember reading a couple of news stories and seeing this data.

            I thought it was surprising as I expected them to be further left.

  3. “The dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of most Ugandan Indians in the early 70s was a notorious episode at the time when the Asian population in Uganda dropped from 96K in 1968 to ~1000 in 1972.
    Wow, that’s quite a lot of people;

    I have seen some interviews with Thomas Sowell and he comes across as a very intelligent man.

  4. VS Naipaul in his novel “A Bend in the River” addressed the Indian experience in east and central Africa. His brother Shiva Naipaul wrote of the Indian community in East Africa in his novel “North of South”.

  5. Indians were partners in the British colonial project in East Africa. Indian nationalists/Congress/Left probably want to ignore the history of Indians in East Africa as it does not fit the narrative of British imperialists exploiting Indian victims. Hindu nationalists probably want to ignore the history of Indians in East Africa because besides Gujarati Hindus it is the story of Gujarati Ismailis, Punjabi Sikhs and Goan Catholics.

    1. Indian ethnicities and communities who were collaborators in the British colonial project in India itself (and thus gaining first mover advantage) do not acknowledge their role, and u are expecting them to acknowledge it in Africa.

    2. I have heard this sort of narrative about Gandh from BLM wants removal of the Gandhi statue in Leicester and a bunch of other places.


      I read Gandhi’s autobiography. He had some weird ideas, but not really racist.

      Basically he was advocating for Indians to be treated better under the South African apartheid. Was not opposed to African empowerment, just pursued a strategy of differentiating Indians by contrasting them with Africans in hopes that they would be treated better.

      He basically failed to make much of a difference.

      I think these experiences are why he took such a universalist stance when he returned to India, and sought to move past caste / creed / class etc.

  6. As a follow up, Indians who left Uganda and Kenya moved to US and UK (not very many moved back to India) are often very successful. From the same book, Sowell mentions that these families have regained most of the personal wealth in a couple of generations, but Kenya and Uganda did not manage to recover the loss of revenue.

    1. My family split. Some moved back to India. Others elsewhere. And yeah everyone did pretty well. Those who went back to india did quite well in Mumbai

  7. Parsis are Gujarati too. They also had a presence in East Africa, as they moved there with the other Gujarati businessmen that they worked with, when they chose to emigrate abroad for business opportunities.

    Freddy Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, was a Castizo Gujarati Parsi born in Zanzibar; him and his parents look like some Gujarati Brahmins I’ve seen in the past. Same goes for his sister. All of the members of the Mercury AKA Bulsara family pass in Gujarat as middle/upper caste Gujaratis, no questions asked. Garvi Gujarat FTW.

    #Parsisrepresent #WewuzPersianandshite #AASIbootyconquersall #FarrokhBulsarawasaGujju #ParsisareIndian #ParsisareBrown

    1. Lol what is triggering this trolling mr. white-presenting Jaat ?

      No one mentioned has Parsis, or weird anthropology stuff in this thread.

      Also Parsis obviously have their own Persian look, but being a Parsi has nothing to do with Latin American racial categories.

      Your father has to be a Parsi.

      This is why Nusli Wadia is a Parsi, even though he is Muhmmad Ali Jinnah’s (gujju middle caste) grandson on the maternal side.

      1. No one is trolling here, these are just the facts. Farrokh’s family were part of the group of Parsis that migrated to East Africa from Gujarat, as the Parsis had strong business relationships with the Gujarati traders. This is relevant to the topic of the thread, Indians in East Africa. And Parsis do not have a uniform “Persian” look, they have a diversity of appearances depending on the Parsi in question, ranging from Gujarati Vania to Gujju Brahmin to West Asian looking, depending on their ancestral makeup. Mercury/Bulsara’s family is a perfect example. Some of them overlap with neighboring West Asians in appearance, depending on how West Eurasian they are, as do most NW South Asians, but this doesnt make them the same people as the Persians. Nor are Parsis like modern-day Persians genetically, owing to ENA admixture and other elements in their ancestry.

        They are Indians, as they have been living in India for over 1,300 years and have intermarried with native Gujaratis and adopted their culture/language etc. They have their own unique identity not found in West Asia. Also, you dont seem to understand race and classification too well. Perhaps because you are a FOB. But anyway, LatAm categories apply quite accurately to any group of people with a mix of West Eurasian and East Eurasian ancestry, which is what all South Asians are — and therefore, it makes sense that they look like any variety of Latino people, ranging from Indio to Criollo, depending on the proportion of West Eurasian heritage they possess, which influences their phenotype. This isnt rocket science. The only difference is the source of West Eurasian ancestry. In the Americas, it is from Europe. While in South Asia, it is from West Asia and the Steppes. The outcomes are the same in terms of racial classification.

        Also, Jatts are not “White-presenting” — they have their own ethnic identity distinct from Europeans and “White” people. It just so happens that in the American context, the US government, rightly/wrongly decided to label a huge swathe of people, ranging from Europe to MENA countries to (originally) India as “White” before changing it to “People with origins in Europe/MENA” after South Asians rightly petitioned for self-identification. The fact that NW South Asians fall into this category because of sharing phenotypes with West Asians and others doesn’t make them the same exact people, it just means they share ancestry with them. They are still Indians culturally and have Indian heritage and traditions/religions, and a distinct NW South Asian identity. They are not “White” in the WASP sense or even in the European sense. They are more accurately described as NW South Asians with West Eurasian origins. The same goes for Parsis. We’re all Indians, we just have diverse origins. And diversity as a strength. I could care less about being “White” or “Beige” or “Olive” etc. Labels do not supersede ethnic identity.

        Back to the OT, Indians, particularly Gujaratis, have had a rather interesting history in East Africa. Parsis, being Indians from Gujarat, have thus been a part of this story as well. And it just so happens that the most famous Gujarati in the music industry, Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, and spent some time there. before spending his formative years learning music in Mumbai.

        1. Well sorry if you aren’t trolling with stuff like this…

          #Parsisrepresent #WewuzPersianandshite #AASIbootyconquersall #FarrokhBulsarawasaGujju #ParsisareIndian #ParsisareBrown

          My point is multi fold,

          1. Aside from Mezito the other mixed race terms aren’t commonly used in modern day Latin America. Afaik.

          They mostly don’t make much sense outside for first few generations. Like you could do it based on looks but then you end up with large differences between mixed race siblings. Etc.

          Indian don’t have that much recent admix.

          2. India has its own convoluted system of social classification which causes problems. I don’t think it benefits from another layer. That’s completely foreign and has roots in European racial supremacist thought.

          3. In the anglo world there is hypodescent and ignorance so I racially a ‘Muslim’ until proven otherwise.

          And Parsis do not have a uniform “Persian” look, they have a diversity of appearances depending on the Parsi in question, ranging from Gujarati Vania to Gujju Brahmin to West Asian looking

          I am very familiar with all these groups. They are all very diverse due to how old the admix is.

          Also Parsis are more Persian looking than other Gujaratis, but obviously they aren’t identical to Persians.

          The actual full Persian recent Zoroastrian immigrant community from Iran in Mumbai are called “Iranis” they are different from “Parsis”.

  8. I was quite surprised to learn of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Gujaratis/Indians from Uganda. I first learned of it in high school, while taking the AP World history course. It was reminiscent of the anti-Semitic pogroms and attitudes that were prevalent in parts of Europe throughout history, and in particular the incidents of looting and rape that were perpetrated upon the population of Indians in Uganda over several weeks bore a tragic resemblance to the events of Kristallnacht in Germany. Sad to see that the uncanny success of a diaspora community contributed to their demise and expulsion. Ironically enough, there is a sizeable population of Ugandan nationals that live in New Delhi.

      1. Interesting. The Tushar Upadhyay person still has such a strong Gujju inflected English accent 🙂

  9. the overthrow of the zanzibar monarchy had a nasty racial cast…the local african muslims raped the daughters of the arabs and indians to show them who was who. arabs and indians left soon after

    1. @Razib

      I remember reading those salacious and horrifying details as well. Must have been an absolutely terrifying experience for the Arab and Indian traders/businessmen, who had earlier been used to a life of law and order, particularly under British rule. What was peculiar was an apocryphal story narrated by a Gujarati businessman, who claimed that Amin had fallen for the daughter of a prominent Indian family, only to be rebuffed by the father when he personally asked for her hand in marriage. The rejection apparently had a profound impact on Amin, who viewed the slight as further evidence in support of the ideas he harbored regarding the “alien nature” of the Indians and colonials that only sought to drain Uganda of its wealth, without “nourishing it in return”.

      In other words, he was convinced that the Indians saw themselves as a class above the native Ugandans, an idea that had been fomenting in his mind for quite some time. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A Greek, nay African, tragedy that was precipitated by a Gujarati Behn. While the veracity of this tale is questionable, it certainly gives one insight into the social dynamics at play in post-colonial Ugandan society. Apartheid it was not, but it certainly seems that Ugandans and foreigners were segregated on rather rigid lines, across society. It brings to mind the more recent eviction/expulsion of White farmers from South Africa. The causes behind it are complex and rooted in painful history, but the effects have been devastating for South Africa as a whole.

      1. Amin had fallen for the daughter of a prominent Indian family, only to be rebuffed by the father when he personally asked for her hand in marriage. The rejection apparently had a profound impact on Amin”

        is this why he turned a cannibal? i still think that is bit of an overreaction!

    2. There are rumors my great grandfather was shot and killed in a local racial riot in addis ababa. Other story is that he succumbed to a stomach virus. I like to tell the former more for obvious reasons lol. My family ran an accounting firm there. They lived in an isolated gated Guju community. So same tribalism as usual

      My parents went on Safari to Tanzania recently. They stayed a bit with far distant cousins. Apparently they were ultra rich in Tanzania. What was wild is that they were stuck in a 1940s India time capsule like my parents are stuck in a 1980s one. So apparently they dressed and spoke quite old school.

      My sister went on the trip. People were shocked to learn she went to prom with an African American guy. To them, it was absolutely nuts.

      Great trip though. Wish I could have gone. I was on my surgery rotation. My parents have some awesome pics with the Masai tribe and of Kilimanjaro.

  10. “I was on my surgery rotation. My parents have some awesome pics with the Masai tribe and of Kilimanjaro.”
    sad u missed it; Elephants in front of the mountain are a spectacular sight – havent been there seen lots of images

  11. @APthk
    I think you might appreciate this video.

    One of my favorite songs^. Latino song but I thinking filming is in Brazil?

    Everyone here is beautiful and it is quite a mixed race atmosphere. I think if India becomes rich, scenes like these can become something India can have more of.

    While we don’t agree on specific proportions of specific groups and where they pass, I think we generally agree well on West vs. Eurasian cline and how phenotype reflects that. You also acknowledge people of various mixtures can be beautiful. I think this video displays just how epically awesome a mixed race place like India can look if values become more progressive and the country becomes richer. And yes, I realize the video is highly idealized. But that’s besides the general point.

    1. I do appreciate that video, many of those folks pass as South Asians from different parts of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. No surprise considering their heritage. And I agree with you on several issues as well. Like I’ve said in the past, we must celebrate our diversity without fetters and restrictions, and accord everyone the same respect they deserve, regardless of where they fall on the West-East Eurasian cline. Lets not forget, the cline exists for a reason. There’s someone for everyone out there, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, being boastful about one’s race is the last thing a self-respecting person would do, for it is the result of nothing more than mere chance.

      I just think that South Asians are too often dehumanized by outsiders to the point where their distinct identities, and connections to the world-at-large are not even known or respected. People need to understand that we share heritage, both genetic and cultural, with fellow Eurasians across the globe. This is the only way we can leverage our diversity to forge strong connections with other peoples and countries. Living in our own little box will lead to our ruin in the long run, and as such, we must foster and nurture relationships with our blood brothers in Eurasia.

      The way things are currently, many people assume/think that South Asians are some pariah grouping of peoples that have nothing in common with others outside of the region. This is unacceptable, and the only way we can fix this is through improving our lot in life (Read: Make India a developed country) and by showcasing the very factual and real overlap of race, appearance, and cultural practices between South Asians of diverse extractions and peoples across the Eurasian continent. This will only serve to legitimize and dignify the identities of the entire bulk of South Asians, as opposed to portraying them as a foreign, alien and unassimilable group of people. You can’t hate your own kind.

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